ANU asbestos study handed to ACT Government

14 September 2015

Rates of mesothelioma have increased over time in the ACT and in the rest of Australia.

The ANU-led ACT Asbestos Health Study has handed its first report to the ACT Government as part of its investigation into health risks of Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos insulation.

The report, a Descriptive Study of Mesothelioma in the ACT, describes the trends in mesothelioma incidence in the ACT from 1982 to 2014. It compares the trends with the rest of Australia but excluding Western Australia, where rates are high due to its history of asbestos mining.

The study found mesothelioma trends in the ACT were consistent with national and international trends, and that on available data, ACT did not stand out. It did not investigate the underlying causes of mesothelioma, which may differ across jurisdictions.

"Rates of mesothelioma have increased over time in the ACT and in the rest of Australia," said lead researcher Dr Rosemary Korda from the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health.

"Although rates have been rising in the ACT, they have been lower on average than the rates for rest of Australia. However, in recent years ACT rates appear to have caught up with the rest of Australia."

The ACT Government in February commissioned ANU to undertake a two-year study to improve understanding of the health risks of Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos insulation, installed in more than 1,000 Canberra homes between 1968 and 1979.

The Descriptive Study of Mesothelioma in the ACT, found mesothelioma was a relatively rare cancer, with 140 cases registered in the ACT between 1982 and 2014.

Between 2009 and 2011, the most recent period where data are considered complete, 2.95 people per 100,000 were diagnosed with the disease.

Other findings were:

  • one case of mesothelioma was diagnosed in a person living in a Mr Fluffy house at the time of their diagnosis;
  • men were much more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than women, with four out of every five cases diagnosed in men, and
  • the majority of cases were diagnosed in people aged 65 years or older, with less than five per cent diagnosed in people aged less than 45 years.

Inhalation of asbestos fibres is the predominant cause of mesothelioma and an important contributor to risk of lung cancer in exposed people. Mesothelioma symptoms commonly take 20 to 50 years to appear after the initial exposure.

In July, ANU hosted a public forum by Emeritus Professor Bruce Armstrong, from the University of Sydney's School of Public Health and the Sax Institute, on the dangers of living in a Mr Fluffy house. The forum is available as an audio podcast.

The health risks associated with living in a Mr Fluffy house are the subject of further studies within the ACT Asbestos Health Study. Further details can be found at http://nceph.anu.edu.au/research/projects/act-asbestos-health-study.